Sunday, September 24, 2017

That Would Be the Day is Today….

Buddy Holly, in glasses, and his Lubbok, Texas high school buddies were The Crickets and the put the cherry on top of developing Rock and Roll.

The history of Rock and Roll is replete with firsts that really weren’t.  Almost anyone will tell you that the first rock and roll song was Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets recorded in 1954 and which shot to the top of the charts the next year.  Wrong.  It can only claim to be the first number one hit and/or the first big hit by White artists covering a Black style.
Some musicologists claim that songs with key rock and roll elements were recorded by Black blues artists as early as 1939.  But it took ten years and several technological and economic changes—the introduction of the 45 rpm single and the collapse of the viability of large touring big bands among them—for Black artists to break out with a new sound on the Rhythm and Blues charts.  Two 1949 contenders were Goree Carter’s guitar driven Rock Awhile and Jimmy Preston’s Rock the Joint with a driving, blaring saxophone lead.  In fact Rock the Joint was covered three years later by Bill Haley and his earlier band The Saddlemen becoming a minor hit.

Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats--really Ike Turner and the Kings of Rythm--is one of the contenders for the title of first true rock and roll song
Another Black contender for first rock and roll record is Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and his Delta CatsIke Turner and The Kings of Rhythm under contract to another label working under a pseudonym—recorded by Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis March of 1951.
By the mid-‘50’s, rock and roll was an emerging genre and picking up steam, but pop charts were still dominated by crooners, close harmony vocal groups—the doo wop sound would emerge from the street corners out of this genre—and even the surviving big bands.  It took Elvis Presley to send it into the stratosphere.  Presley was the super-nova of a group of Sun Records stars who would infuse Delta blues and Gospel sounds into a tight, stripped down country sound.  Presley’s first regional hit, That’s All Right Momma was recorded within months of Rock Around the Clock.  Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, all recording at Sun along with Presley would define what became known as Rock-a-Billy.
In 1955 Black blues based performers would drive the beat even harder and introduce a new guitar soundBo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard.  And white acts were hard on their heels cleaning up lyrics and sanding off raw edges to make their sound acceptable to white teenagers—and their parents.

Chuck Berry was among the black artists who were kicking up early rock and roll to an intense new level with a driving, beat heavy guitar.
By 1957 rock and roll was a cultural steamroller.  So why at this late date does a record by some kids from Lubbock, Texas barely out of their teens which went to No. 1 on September 24, 1957, rate as seminal in rock history? 
Because the band, The Crickets, their lead singer and creative dynamo, Buddy Holly, and a smart record label assembled at last all of the elements that would tie together the disparate roots of rock and propel it into a new era.  That was the day that That’ll be the Day made it to the top.
The Cricket’s line-uplead, rhythm, and electric bass guitar and drumsstripped away saxes, horns, stride or boogie-woogie piano, organ, and even the country fiddles and accordions that were part of earlier combos.  This quartet arrangement soon became standard, capable of delivering a beat heavy, driving sound.  The band could sing together in harmony or put Holly out front.  They could take the themes of teen age love, the stripped down substitute for the raw sex of early black rock, and run with them in new and creative directions.  Perhaps most important, they were the first white act to consistently write and record their own material instead of either adapting it from Black artists or using the talents of professional songwriters like those in the famous Brill Building.  Within a few years bands, as opposed to solo performers, would dominate rock music and they would be expected to produce their own songs.
They were immediately influential.  Within a year other acts were copying their formula.  In the early ‘60’s John Lennon and Paul McCartney would acknowledge their debt by naming their band the Beatles, a tip-o’-the-hat to the Crickets.
Influenced by the Memphis Rock-a-Billies, Holly and high school pals were experimenting and making demos as early as 1954.  Holly signed with Decca Records in 1956 and recorded several sides under his own name with the backing of Sonny Curtis, Jerry Allison and Don Guess in Nashville.  These records were straight forward Rock-a-Billy and were only moderately regionally successful.  One of those sides was a version of That’ll be the Day.
Holly was inspired to write the song after a trip to the local movie palace in Lubbock with his pals where they saw The Searchers.  The words were something of a catch phrase for John Wayne’s obsessed character.

The Brunswick label for That'll be the Day by the Crickets.  This version took almost six months to rise to #1 on the charts and change Rock and rolls.  An earlier  solo verison recorded in Memphis for Deca with a studio band was subsequently released asa si ngle but did not match the Crickets's success.  But the Deca version has debeen included in so many copilation albums and colections that it is now heard alsmost as often. 
In February 1957 producer Norman Petty brought Holly and his band, now consisting of drummer Jerry Allison, bassist Joe B. Mauldin, and rhythm guitarist Niki Sullivan to Clovis, New Mexico for a new recordings session for the Brunswick label.  Because Holly was under contract as a solo to Decca, Petty decided to release the resulting recordings under a band name.  After a brief consultation among the members, they settled on The Crickets after first toying with some “bird” names. 
That’ll Be the Day was released in May with Holly’s name visible only in the fine print as a composer under the name of The Crickets, as would all of the subsequent successful releases from that session.  It began its slow rise to the top.  As it did so, Decca discovered that their artist was one of the Crickets.  They were not overly alarmed, however, because Brunswick was a subsidy.  They signed a new deal with Holly.  The material recorded in Nashville would be released under his own name on Decca.  Anything recorded with the band would be released as the Crickets.  Subsequent solo efforts by Holly would go out on yet another subsidy label, Coral.

The BuddyHolly Center in his Lubbock, Texas home town comemorates the young musician's achievements.
As That’ll Be the Day was nearing the peak of its climb, Decca released the Nashville version under Holly’s name on September 7 as a B side to Rock Around With Ollie Vee.  It was not a hit, but made it to Holly’s solo LP.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Tree of Life UU Congregation’s new Word Players to Present Chatting With the Tea Party—Casting Call

The Social Justice Team of Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation is launching a new Arts in Resistance projectWord Players, a readers’ theater company to present interesting and challenging plays with social justice themes.  Under the direction of Patrick Murfin our first effort will be Chatting With the Tea Party by Rich Orloff which will be presented on Friday, November 10 at the church, 5603 Bull Valley Road in McHenry.

Originally written in 2012 and updated in 2016 for its New York Off-Broadway premier the play is more relevant than ever. 

The playwright, Richard Orloff.

Chatting With the Tea Party is about one person’s journey across America exploring the question, “Who are these people?”It’s a documentary style play about a New York liberal playwright who decides to travel around the country interviewing leaders of local Tea Party groups, to get to know people whose political beliefs are diametrically opposed to his.  For a year the playwright attended Tea Party meetings and events in cities large and small in every region of the country. The play shapes the highlights of over 63 hours of interviews plus notes from events the playwright attended to create a play that strives to go beyond soundbites and stereotypes to show the people behind the politics. In a journey that’s at times disturbing, humorous, moving, and always thought-provoking, the playwright discovers not only how and if he can affect the people he meets, but also how they may be influencing him.

The play requires a cast of fourthree men and a woman.  One actor will play Rich, the questing playwright.  The other three will take on multiple rolls of real people, public figures, and historical personages.   As a readers’ theater production, actors will work with scripts.  No memorization is required, but a good familiarity and understanding of the material.

The cast of the recent New York production of Chatting With the Tea Party, Maribeth Graham, Richard Kent Green, John E. Brady, and Jeffrey C. Wolf.

We will require one table reading and at least two and no more than three rehearsals.  There will be limited blocking and the use of some props and costume elements.

We are also looking for volunteers to run sound and lighting and for light costume and prop support.  In our dreams, maybe even a stage manager!

Interested?  Casting needs to be completed by October 6.  I can send a .pdf or Word doc copy of the script to those who are interested.  Contact Patrick Murfin at or 815 814-5645.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Jack Dempsey and the Long Count in Chicago

Jack Dempsey, the Manassas Mauler, rose from hobo to one of the most popular Heavy Weight Champions of all time.

How big a deal was the second Dempsey-Tunney Heavyweight Championship fight that was held at Chicago’s Soldier Field on September 22, 1927?  Big.  Huge. Gargantuan.  Oh there had been fights with greater attendance—120,000 squeezed into Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial Stadium 364 days earlier on September 23, 1926 to see Jack Dempsey defend his title against top contender Gene Tunney, his first title bout in three years.  Tunney had stunned the nation by handily whooping the popular champ on points.  Interest in the re-match was astronomical.  Only 104,000 bodies could squeeze into Soldier Field—but they shelled out $2,658,660, about $22 million in today’s dollars, the first $2 million gate in entertainment history and a record that would stand for 50 years.
The fight attracted celebrities of all stripes, politicians, millionaire businessmen, and many of the best known writers in America.  Fight promoter Tex Rickard boasted to a reporter before the bout with only a little hyperbole, “Kid, if the earth cam’se up and the sky came down and wiped out my first 10 rows, it would be the end of everything. Because I’ve got in those 10 rows all the world’s wealth, all the world’s big men, all the world’s brains and production talent. Just in them 10 rows, kid. And you and me never seed (sic) nothing like it.”  In big cities around the country crowds gathered on streets to see round by round summaries of the action posted, just as they gathered for the results of World Series games.
Despite losing his belt decisively the year before, the draw as Dempsey, the famous Manassa Mauler, a brawling former hobo from out West who had become the People’s Champion.
Jack Dempsey was born in Manassa, Colorado on June 24, 1895, his father was a down-on-his-luck sometime miner and laborer who bounced from town to town, and job to job or job hunt around Colorado, West Virginia, and finally Utah.  The whole family sometimes rode the rails and jungled up at hobo camps.  When he was about 5 his mother converted to Mormonism and cajoled her husband to join her.  Jack was baptized at age 8, the age of consent in the faith.  The connection to the Latter Day Saints brought the family to Salt Lake.
By the time he was a teenager Dempsey was helping to support his family by entering saloons and announcing, “I can’t sing, I can’t dance, but I can lick anyone in the house.” He was already a powerful puncher and could take a pummeling, too.  He made a living from the bets on the bar brawls he almost always won and was soon fighting in amateur matches, then as a low grade pro on the club and smoker circuit.  His early record is hard to keep track of because he boxed under his own name and as Kid Blackie. 
From 1914 to early ’17 Dempsey fought 36 times under his own name mostly in Utah, Colorado, and Nevada, but with a trip to New York in 1916 as he gained a reputation.  His record was 30 wins—most by knock-outs—six draws or no decisions, and just two losses.
With the outbreak of World War I, Dempsey got a good job in a California ship yard making real money without having to rely on his fists for the first time in his life.  He would later be taunted as a draft dodger for not entering the Army.  In fact, as we shall see, this was an issue in his fights with Tunney ten years later.  Dempsey had actually tried to enlist but was rejected because of injuries associated with boxing.  Whether or not he need to box for the money, he loved the game and fought several times in California on the weekend including some bouts against nationally ranked fighters like Willie Mehan.
By 1918 he was well enough known to tour and fight about every two weeks in Racine, Wisconsin; Buffalo, New York; Milwaukee; St. Paul; Denver; Joplin, Missouri; Atlanta; Harrison, New Jersey; Dayton, Ohio; back to San Francisco for a rematch with Mehan (his only loss in this stretch; Reno; New Orleans; multiple times in Philadelphia and other Pennsylvania cities; New Haven.  It was a brutal, grueling schedule, but after the loss to Mehan, he had ten straight victories all but one by a knock out.  The boxing world was abuzz about the brawler from the west and Dempsey had earned his shot at the reigning champ.
Dempsey connects with the much larger champ Jess Willard in his upset win of the Heavy Weight Championship.
Jess Willard, the Pottawatomi Giant, had been the final Great White Hope and the man who finally defeated the first Black Champ, Jack Johnson.  He had held the title for four years, but had defended the title only once back in 1916 preferring to rake in purses from non-title bouts and appearance fees for exhibition bouts.  He towered over Dempsey and outweighed him by almost 40 pounds.  He was and remains the biggest fighter to hold the heavy weight belt. 
But with a devastating attack and flurries of punches to the head, Dempsey knocked the champ down 5 times in the first round, battering his face into a swollen mess.  Although there were no more knock downs, Dempsey dominated the next two rounds.  Willard could not answer the bell at the beginning of round four.  Dempsey was World Champ.  The power of Dempsey’s punches was so terrific, charges of doctored gloves, bandage wraps covered in plaster of Paris, or even that he was clutching an iron spike in one glove were bandied about.  All charges were disproved by witnesses who saw Dempsey’ hands unwrapped and by fight film showing him pushing Willard away in clenches with his glove open.  Willard himself said:
Dempsey is a remarkable hitter. It was the first time that I had ever been knocked off my feet. I have sent many birds home in the same bruised condition that I am in, and now I know how they felt. I sincerely wish Dempsey all the luck possible and hope that he garnishes all the riches that comes with the championship. I have had my fling with the title. I was champion for four years and I assure you that they’ll never have to give a benefit for me. I have invested the money I have made.
The brawler defended his title five times over the next few years beginning against Billy Miski 14months later.  Ray Brennan at Madison Square Garden gave the champ his toughest fight going 15 rounds before being KOed on body punches.  His fight with French Champion and World War I hero Georges Carpentier at Boyle’s Thirty Acres in Jersey City resulted in the first million dollar gate and the Frenchman hitting the canvas in the fourth round.  The fast on his feet Tommy Gibbons went 15 rounds in a fight at remote Shelby, Montana.  Dempsey won on a decision.  The Champ said, “Nailing him was like trying to thread a needle in a high wind.” The defense against another giant, Argentine Luis Fripo had to be held at the Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants to accommodate the crowd.  The 1923 bout was not a close fight.  Dempsey had Fripo down multiple times.  But Fripo could take a punch and came back to land a lucky one against Dempsey which sent him sailing through the ropes onto the ring side press table.  The Champ got back in the ring and nailed Fripo in the second round.  Probably the most famous sports painting of all time was by George Bellows showing Dempsey landing on that table.

The most famous boxing painting, maybe the most famous sports painting of all time--Fripo knocks Dempsey through the ropes.  Copies hung over hundreds of bars.
After the Fripo fight Dempsey took an extended break from defending his title.  He took time off to marry actress Estelle Taylor and appeared with her in a short run Broadway production called The Big Fight.  He also had a nasty break up with his longtime manager Jack “Doc” Kearns that resulted in a bitter, expensive, and time consuming law suit.  Mostly Dempsey was just enjoying the fruits of being Champ and one of the most famous and popular men in America.
But as time dragged on criticism mounted for his failure to defend the Title.  The main reason seemed to be that the top contender, Harry Willis was Black.  After first winning the Belt at a time when the wounds to the White American psyche from the dominance of Jack Johnson was still fresh, Dempsey had told a reporter that he would not allow a Negro to fight him for the championship.  Now he publicly claimed to be willing to face Willis.  And it may be true.  Promoters and venues fearing race riots were not eager to take the risk.
Enter a new rising contender, Gene Tunney.
Tunney was born on May 27, 1897 to Irish immigrant parents in New York City.  He was big and exceptionally fast for his size and established himself as an amateur and club fighter as a highly skilled ring man.  He is known to have lost only two fights.  He enlisted in the Marine Corps and fought in France where he also became American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) Champion.
After the War he became a lumberjack in Ontario for a while, seeking solitude and recovery from what was likely combat caused post-traumatic stress syndrome before turning pro.  Then he quickly moved up through the ranks beating top boxers including Carpentier and Gibbons.  By 1926 he was a popular fighter tagged the Fighting Marine and a reasonable White alternative top contender.  A bout with Dempsey was inevitable.
Promoter Tex Rickard wanted to stage the bout in Chicago.  But Dempsey got word the Al Capone was a big fan and was ready to bet big money on the fight.  Dempsey was still stung by those early charges that his Title win against Willard might have been rigged in some way and knew that gambling and fight fixing  were eating away at public support.  He insisted the fight not be held in the Windy City.  Instead the two fighters met in Philadelphia.

Gene Tunney became Dempsey's nemesis and then life long friend.
This time public sentiment had swung to Tunney both because of Dempsey’s long lay-off and because charges that he was a draft dodger were resurrected and compared to the challenger’s status as a war hero and veteran.   Many boxing experts thought Dempsey would be rusty and thought that Tunney was a technically more proficient fighter.
It turned out that those experts were right.  Tunney out fought Dempsey for 10 rounds and won a unanimous decision.  It was Dempsey’s graciousness in defeat and a widely reported quip to his wife, “Honey, I forgot to duck,” that help him win back the admiration of the fans.
After contemplating retirement, Dempsey came back to win a bout with another top contender, Jack Sharkey at Yankee Stadium in 1927 for the right to face Tunney again.
As the challenger, Dempsey could not keep the fight out of Chicago.  And as he feared, Capone bragged about putting down $50,000 of his own money on him.  The public followed, betting heavily on the challenger.
As champ Tunney got sports first million dollar pay day, while Dempsey was guaranteed about half of that.  During negotiations on the terms of the bout, someone from Dempsey’s camp insisted on using the new, but optional, rule that required fighters to retreat to a neutral corner after a knock down before a count could begin.  It is a mystery why Dempsey’s people would make such a request since their fighter’s aggressive style including standing over prone opponents ready to slam them as they struggled to their feet.  This was highly effective, and a deterrent to a groggy fighter even considering getting back up.  They also agreed to a larger than standard ring, an advantage to the mobile Tunney and a disadvantage to Dempsey who liked to pin his opponents in a corner and pummel them with a flurry of blows.
Once again Tunney dominated the fight.  He was well ahead on points in the seventh round when Dempsey recovered and unleashed a torrent of hits sending Tunney to the canvas.  For what seemed like several seconds, Dempsey loomed over Tunney as the referee tried to push him away and told him to retreat to a neutral corner.  It was as if he forgot or never knew the rule.  The count did not begin until Dempsey finally did.  On the count of nine, Tunney got up and closed on Dempsey.  The round ended but in the next round he dropped Dempsey for a count on one—but the referee began that count before Tunney reached the corner.  The Champ outscored Dempsey through the final two rounds and won a unanimous decision.

Tunney is down but the ref won't start the count until Dempsey goes to his corner.  At the end of the famous Long Count, Tunney  got to his feet and pummeled Dempsey.
The fight became celebrated in boxing lore for the Long Count.  Just how much extra time Tunney had to recover was controversial.  The official time keeper had the total time Tunney was down as 14 seconds.  In a film of the fight a clock was superimposed that recorded Tunney’s time on the floor as 13 seconds, from the moment he fell until he got up.  But most of the public never saw that film until years later when the ban on interstate transportation of boxing films was lifted.  But at the time the public imagined a much longer break for Tunney and sympathy swung to Dempsey who some thought was robbed.
Neither of the fighters saw it that way.  After the fight, Dempsey lifted Tunney’s arm and said, “You were best. You fought a smart fight, kid.” Tunney later said that he had picked up the referee’s count at two, and could have gotten up at any point after that, but waited until nine for obvious tactical reasons. Dempsey said, “I have no reason not to believe him. Gene’s a great guy.”
Dempsey may have lost the fight, but he emerged as a beloved hero. 
Tunney defended his title just once and then retired undefeated in 1928 at the request of his wife, wealthy socialite, Mary “Polly” Lauder.  He and Dempsey became great friends and were close through the rest of their lives.  The couple had several children including Democratic Senator John V. Tunney of California.  He died at age 81 on November 7, 1978 in Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut.
Jack Dempsey and his famous New York restaurant were featured in MGM's Big City in 1937 with Spencer Tracy and Louise Rainer.  Dempsey and other sports legends including Jim Thorpe, former White Hope Jim Jeffords, and popular wrestler of the day Man Mountain Dean join Tracy in a climatic street brawl between independent and union cab drivers.  Don't ask....
Dempsey enjoyed a long retirement and became the proprietor of a popular New York night club.  He made several films, usually playing himself including Big City with James Cagney and appeared on several top radio programs.  He fronted several charities, including one to raise money for his friend Joe Lewis when he was down on his luck. 
During World War II he finally put the old draft resister canard behind him by enlisting in the Coast Guard and rising to the rank of Lt. Commander.  Although he spent much of his time selling War Bonds and making moral boosting visits to the troops, Dempsey also instructed sailors in self-defense and saw sea duty and action aboard the attack transport USS Arthur Middleton) for the invasion of Okinawa. 

Lt. Commander Jack Dempsey of the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II.
In 1977 he wrote an autobiography Dempsey in collaboration with his daughter Barbara Lynn.
On May 31, 1983, Dempsey died of heart failure in New York City at age 87 with his second wife Deanna at his side. His last words were “Don’t worry honey; I’m too mean to die.”
Almost Jack, almost.